The future of agriculture: Turning manure and food waste into a valuable resource

By Erin Fitzgerald Sexson

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Editor's note Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly globalized and dynamic world.

For the U.S. agricultural and food sector to maintain its competitive advantage in the global marketplace, it must collaboratively move toward more robust, sustainable food systems.

Throughout the twentieth century, farms across the country adopted new practices that helped to produce nutritious, affordable food for an increasing number of Americans. For example, dollar for dollar, American dairy foods are one of the most economical sources of nutrition in the grocery store today. At the same time, efficiencies and innovations have helped reduce the environmental impact of milk production. Since 1944, milk production has quadrupled, but producing a gallon of milk requires 90 percent less cropland, consumes 65 percent less water and emits 63 percent fewer greenhouse gases.

The dairy industry is determined to learn from this history of continuous improvement and move forward together toward a more sustainable food system - one that preserves the health of our people, our communities and our planet. Eight years ago, dairy farmers, dairy companies, brands, retailers, academics and scientists gathered to align on a common vision and goals. The result was a science-based, open-source and collaborative process to develop measurement and communication resources that help dairy farmers and companies identify opportunities for improvement and track progress across the entire value chain - from grass to glass.

Taking it a step further, the industry announced a voluntary greenhouse gas reduction goal of 25% by 2020. Research revealed that on-farm environmental performance (specifically, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and water quality) is primarily driven by 25 variables. These variables are on-farm practices that are actively managed by farmers. With that knowledge, we could predict that if farmers have the information and tools they need to manage these variables for optimal performance, then their collective action could have a big impact.


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Recognizing the proactive and voluntary approach as a model for other agricultural sectors, the White House recently honored our efforts toward sustainable and climate-smart agriculture.

Converting waste into a valuable resource

Under the leadership of America's dairy farmers and importers, this commitment continues to grow. Actions are underway to unlock the valuable potential of America's burgeoning amount of food waste - a critical component in a sustainable food system. Food waste comprises the majority of material in the municipal solid waste stream.  And a recent study found that Americans are throwing out more than twice as much trash than previously thought. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of the food grown, processed and transported in the U.S. will never be consumed. Financially speaking, this amounts to a retail value loss of $166 billion each year.

To honor the harvest of our farms, we must look to enable food systems through food-cycling - a closed loop system that returns the  valuable nutrients in food waste back to the farm, where they are combined with dairy cow manure and recycled into a natural fertilizer through composting and biogas systems. The natural biological process in these systems maximizes the value of every nutrient. Numerous examples exist of food companies, retailers and restaurants partnering with farmers to recycle food scraps that are inedible to humans and animals, avoiding landfills and incineration.

The White House worked with the dairy industry through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap intended to accelerate the adoption of biogas systems like this. The biogas can be used to power onsite operations, and excess energy can be sold back to the market. The Roadmap identifies opportunity in the U.S. to install an additional 11,000 biogas systems, which can produce energy to power more than 3 million homes.  It estimates the potential economic value of digester co-products at $2.9 billion.

As we look to remain an agricultural leader in 21st century America and abroad, we need to work together to unlock the valuable potential in our food waste and manure, absorbing every nutrient. It's only by working together that we can maximize our positive impact on society, the planet and the bottom line.

 

About the author: Erin Fitzgerald Sexson is senior vice president, global sustainability for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy®, a forum for the dairy community to work together pre-competitively to foster research,  measurement and innovation for sustainability from farm to table. It was founded by dairy farmers through Dairy Management Inc.™ (DMI), which is the parent company of National Dairy Council. In October 2015, Erin was recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture Lets Talk Food


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